The Battle of Midway: Definition, Summary, Facts & Significance

The Battle of Midway: Definition, Summary, Facts & Significance
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  • 0:01 The Five Minute…
  • 0:23 America's World War II
  • 2:22 The American Advantage
  • 3:22 The Battle
  • 4:46 Battle's End
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
During World War II, a small atoll between Japan and Hawaii, called Midway, became prime real estate for both the United States and Japan. Control of this island would help to usher in the Allied defeat of Japan.

The Five-Minute Miracle at Midway

We've probably all used the phrase, 'Just give me five minutes.' But what can you really accomplish in five minutes?

This is the story of five minutes near a tiny Pacific island that most of us hadn't heard of before...five minutes that turned the tide of the war. This is the story of the most important five minutes in the Battle of Midway.

America's World War II

By June of 1942, World War II was six months old for the United States. It had been a lousy six months. On December 7, 1941, the war had begun at Pearl Harbor, when over 2,400 Americans had been killed during a surprise attack by Japan. With America's Pacific fleet either sunk or damaged, the Japanese navy ran roughshod over the American bases in the South Pacific and had seized territory throughout Southeast Asia. This was all part of Japan's overall plan; they had intended to knock out the American navy at Pearl Harbor so they could pursue the consolidation of lands throughout the Pacific.

Japan's plan for domination called for an invasion of Australia to consolidate Southeast Asia and Indochina into the empire's borders. This scheme, however, had been blunted during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1941, when the U.S. Navy had fought the Japanese to a draw and halted the proposed invasion.

So Japan now turned back to Hawaii. The difficulty was that the U.S. Navy was down, but clearly not out; the naval officer who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had warned Japanese leaders that he could inflict heavy damage on the U.S. and effectively defeat them for six months, but after that, America's enormous industrial capacity would come to bear, and Japan could not hope to match it. Unless the massive naval base at Pearl Harbor was knocked out of the picture indefinitely, it was unlikely Japan would continue her run of success.

Hawaii, however, was too far away from the Japanese mainlands for an effective occupation force. The plan, then, was to seize an island within bombing range of Hawaii. The ideal target was the U.S.-held Midway - barely even an island, really an atoll - only about 1,300 miles from Honolulu. But, it had an airfield and fuel dumps. In early June 1942, a massive Japanese armada made up of dozens of ships and four aircraft carriers set sail, bound for Midway.

The American Advantage

Luckily for the U.S., they had an advantage of which the Japanese were unaware. American cryptologists had broken Japanese military code and were reading secret intercepts about an operation against a target called 'AF.' Though unaware of what 'AF' was specifically, American intelligence officers had reason to suspect that it was Midway. The commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Adm. Chester Nimitz, decided to gamble - he had an uncoded message sent saying that 'AF' had a limited water supply. When U.S. personnel intercepted a Japanese message stating that 'AF' was short of water, they knew the target was Midway.

That gave the Americans crucial information, but it remained to be seen if they could do anything with it. The fleet had been battered in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and one of the three aircraft carriers, the Yorktown, had been rushed through a three-day repair turnaround. They would be massively outgunned by the coming Japanese armada.

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